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Journey to the Stone - Lightning Ridge Black Opal

Journey to the stone podcast about Lightning Ridge Black Opal

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In this episode of Journey to the Stone, I want to talk about one of the most colorful, one of the most difficult to get in the current market, and one of the most mind-boggling gemstones that Mother Nature produces. It holds all the colors of the most important gems in the world: the red of the Ruby, the blue of the Sapphire, the green of the Tsavorite or the Emerald. You've got colors, the yellows that come out of Canary Yellow Diamond—all of these colors mixed together within one location to create one gemstone. And that happens in Lightning Ridge, Australia. Let's talk about Lightning Ridge Black Opal.

Now, usually, I would cover several Opals within one segment. But Lightning Ridge, I will cover on its own, because it is such an important range of Opal. And it's very different than its other counterparts that are discovered in Mexico, Ethiopia, in different locales across the world. Let's focus on the Potch Black variety of Opal. So I'm going to take you to Lightning Ridge in Australia, and let's talk about rarity.

So I've been going to Lightning Ridge for about 20-odd years, almost 30 years, and basically, I saw the mining go from like 10,000 people down to 200 people. And don't get me wrong—this is not because of supply and demand, and too much supply and no demand. It's because there is just very little Opal left. They have mined it out. The gem of Black Opal has consecutively and consistently grown, year on year, in value. And if you have any Opals that have patterns—like if you have a Harlequin Black Opal now—you can just ask whatever you want for it. I have given Kat Florence two Harlequin Black Opals that are my prized collection pieces. They are mind-boggling. They're around the 10.00 carat mark. One is like a green-blue, but the pattern is like what you would see on a cloud—different patches—the perfect pattern.

And then there is one that comes from Inverted Ridge, which is one of the mines in Lightning Ridge, and, I mean, the story it took me to get that stone… I literally stayed there for six weeks negotiating on this stone with the miner. They are so difficult to buy from, because they know how to read the rough as well. But this stone—I couldn't let it go. I literally moved in. I stayed there. I couldn't leave Lightning Ridge without this stone.

Lightning Ridge Black Opal ring

And this particular stone will blow your head off if you see it, and I'm sure you'll see it up there on the web somewhere, because it is a legendary statement piece. To be honest with you, it belongs in museums. So if you see Kat Florence with the term “Harlequin,” you know it is my two best stones, because I've only ever given her two Harlequin Black Lightning Ridge. Then you've got a whole range of my personal collection that I've collected through the years of Lightning Ridge Black Opal.

Now, I'm actually quite an interesting character when it comes to Black Opal, because I would buy, let's say, 1,000 Opals over a trip expanding four to six weeks, and I would basically sell them into the US market or into the Japanese market or into the Asian market, and I would just hold on to the best one. And I did this for almost 30 years, coming together with a collection of around 20 to 30 pieces of the finest Australian Black Opals you will ever see. So when you see Kat Florence's designs featuring a Black Opal, you know they come from my personal collection.

Now, I've had some crazy experiences in Lightning Ridge. I won't even get into the discussions of how much I've had to drink in many cases just to befriend a miner to try to get him to sell me this stone. There is such a demand for these stones that they don't easily let them go. It's not like normal mines where you rock up, you run through the jungle, you get to it, and it's not like I had other options. I mean, I have found Black Opal in different locations in the world. You know, you found Ethiopian Black Opal, but it's a different type.

Ethiopian Black Opal, first of all, it's a Hydrophane variety of Opal, so it has a higher concentration of water. Don't get me wrong, they are stable in certain cases—some are not—but I can identify the stability and non-stability of these particular Opals. But they just don't have the depth of color that the Lightning Ridge Black Opal has.

Lightning Ridge Black Opal bracelet

So if you're looking for a Black Opal that will blow your head off, this is the material to buy. Now, if you can't find Lightning Ridge Black Opal, because they are extremely limited—especially if they have amazing patterns. All the ones in Kat Florence's collection are my private collectibles that I've held on to for 20-30 years, and they all have amazing patterns and amazing colors. They were selected and collected for a particular reason. So take a look at that collection of what Kat Florence has worked with in the Opal world. And you'll see a whole lot of colors that you just don't see a lot of, and you'll see patterns that are remarkable, and aeronautically engineer jewelry or round the Opal to hold it together.

I would say the second best for dispersion and life of the Black Opal variety is the Indonesian Opal. What's interesting about the Indonesian Opal, is it's strategically located between Australia and Africa, where the Welo Opal is. So it's actually a hybrid variety of the Hydrophane and also the Potch body type. So if you look at this particular Opal, you got the crystallization, very similar to the material that comes out of Ethiopia or Mexico, but you have a darker body color—sort of like a darker canvas that the painting can go on, because Opal is basically Mother Nature's painting on a gemstone.

And what she's doing is painting, and the darker and deeper color the canvas is, the more pop of color you're going to see. You know, with Black Opal, you get a lot of depth. Like good quality of Black Opal, you have layer on top of layer of Opal, and really the depth of color is what defines the pop. And with Indonesian Opal, it's as well as the play of color on top of each other, you will see a lot of rare colors that you don't see in Black Opal and Indonesian Opal.

But guys, don't get used to Indonesian Opal as well. Because that material was mined out in the 70s. It is very uncommon, me as a gem hunter, and as a fanatic. I go after the rarest gems in the world. So when I get a chance to buy Indonesian Opal, I buy it. And the last purchase I was ever able to make from Indonesia, with Indonesian Opal, was actually from a guy who basically called me up randomly. He got in touch with me through a connection. And he used to work for the government: he was in charge of the boring in this area of Indonesia. Don't confuse Indonesian Black with what they have online now, this Petrified Wood Opal. That's all treated junk; that's not worth anything. I'm talking about natural Black Opals from Indonesia; they tend to be more like a cognac black. They can go from brownish to black. But there are some black varieties, some gray-black varieties of Indonesian Opal that can set you back five digits per carat, just like their counterpart in Australia. Because the local market in Indonesia is always—look, we're dealing with a population of hundreds of millions of people; a deposit, which is their national stone, that depleted in the 70s. And, therefore, there are collectors within Indonesia that are also looking for Black Opal.

But anyway, I got a call from this guy who did the boring in the 60s and 70s. An old fella. I flew over to Indonesia and, you know, sat down with the guy. He dumps out this bag, and I nearly fell off my chair. I'd never seen Indonesian Opal in, you know, I've seen five or six stones around, selling for $10,000, $15,000 a carat. And there he had a whole bag of rough material, because what they used to do is: they dig to get the results of the borings, and basically pull them up. There it was in front of me. And I just asked him one simple question: “How much you want?” And he said, “I'll tell you what, I'll sell the whole thing to you for $200,000.” Right. And, of course, I'm a gem guy, right? So I said, “Give me $50,000 in cash right now.” He said, “Listen, I'm an old man. But I'm not a stupid man.”

And I said, “Good point.” I paid him his $200,000 because I'd never seen it before. Right? Anyway, he won that one. Ding-ding! Gem Hunter, lose. Miner, win. Or: guy who worked for government won. But that was the only time I ever got Indonesian Opal in any significant volume. Very, very beautiful.

But if you want the Opal that has caught the world by storm, that people are aware of and people do know, it's the Lightning Ridge Black. Now, don't get me wrong: you got other Opal deposits that come out of Andamooka, you've got Coober Pedy, but they don't tend to have the black body like the Lightning Ridge material.

Now, I've met some characters in Lightning Ridge, you know, Eight Mile Under, Inverted Ridge, these are different names. The names that they named these mines in Lightning Ridge—it's like everybody gets hammered and then comes up with a name for their mine. It's ridiculous. But it's cool. It's part of the situation there: you go, you hang out. But, you know, it's interesting to see what's happened.

And this is always the problem with natural gemstones—when you bring into the fact that you're dealing with Mother Nature, right—is these gems are finite. So once, a long time ago, 20-odd, 30 years ago, there were 5,000 to 10,000 miners in Lightning Ridge. Now there's like 200, 300 people, right? So, unfortunately, it will become a thing of the past. There's no doubt about that.

And I'm grateful, because I look at my collection, and I look at them, and I go, “Wow.” And I see Kat, and the art she puts around these pieces, and the effort. And you know, I feel grateful about that. But you know, Lightning Ridge: if you have one, or you bought one during your trip to Australia over the last 20 or 30 years, just hold on to that stone. Prices are only going up. Because there is no supply in the current market. Even if you bought it from a jewelry store, as long as it's a full Opal and not a doublet or a triplet.

And a lot of people would want me to explain. A doublet and triplet is basically when you have a very thin layer of Opal. And they put Quartz on top of it. And it's a man-made thing, right? They take a sliver of Opal and they basically just top it with some Glass, Crystal or whatever, you know, just to make it look like an Opal.

Harlequin Lightning Ridge Black Opal ring

But the pure—if you have a full solid Opal, and you have something from Lightning Ridge, look after it. Hold on to it. We’re loud and proud. These babies are getting rarer, and rarer. And prices are soaring and supply is diminishing. But they are Mother Nature's art. They are one of the rarest geological phenomena in the world. The way they form is really remarkable.

And if you want to know—I'll just take you through it. Because this is exactly why I do these episodes in this podcast, is to educate people on how these gems formed. I don't like to get always into the technicalities because I don't want you falling asleep. But I will explain it the way that it's simple to understand.

This is how Opal is formed: water falls into the ground. So water falls from the sky, and it seeps into the ground, it seeps in. In the ground, you have something called the water level that goes up and down and up and down. Right, as more water falls, the water level in the ground goes up. As you know, water doesn't fall. And basically you know, the sun's out and there's no water falling, the water levels go down. And as the water levels go up and down like this for hundreds of thousands of years, if there's the presence of different trace elements within the ground, Opal will start to grow.

It's also the same way that Malachite grows and some other gem varieties—it's through the rising and dropping of different water concentrations going up and down in the ground. And this is basically what happened in Australia. Now this is the simplistic, most easy way to explain that. I don't want to get into too technical, right? Because otherwise, I get into—you know, a lot of people wanting to go in, and people reach out to me anyway, and I can get into technicalities. If you want, you can reach out to me directly.

But I hope you enjoyed my explanation of the Opals. They are rare, they're not common. And these particular Lightning Ridge Blacks: I'm telling you, if you manage to get one through your lifetime, or you know a person who got one, this would be a good time to consider grabbing it, because the prices are only rising significantly. And I'm really concerned, because every time I go back to Australia—whether it's to go to Queensland to buy rough Sapphire to sell to the Thai cutters or to export to different parts of the world—I’m just seeing less and less of this material.

Hope you enjoyed my episode on Lightning Ridge Black Opal. Stay tuned. Coming up, I will talk about other types of Opal in a different episode. Love to all, have a wonderful day.

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